July 9, 2009

Wal-Mart and The Poway Road Specific Plan

Poway became a city in 1980. A few years later, the City formed a redevelopment agency and started planning an industrial park in the hills on the south side of Poway. Mary Shephardson, one of the original city councilmembers, once said that the Council was leery of the massive industrial park project, but that what clinched it for them was the east-west road (now called Scripps Poway Parkway) that was to be built through the industrial park that would relieve the traffic congestion on Poway Rd. As soon as Scripps Poway Parkway opened, all the Ramonans would drive on it instead of Poway Rd and our trips through town would be hunky dorey.

Why in the world did the city spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the massive industrial park development, a project they repeatedly said would relieve congestion on Poway Rd, only to turn around and approve the Wal-Mart project which would flood Poway Rd with lots of new traffic? Wal-Mart was never a shopping destination just for the locals in Poway. It was always an "economic tourist destination" meant to draw shoppers from a larger regional area that would enhance the city's sales tax coffers.

Wal-Mart opened in Poway in August 1992. Soon after Wal-Mart opened, the nearby K-Mart closed. But Wal-Mart's impact went further. While Wal-Mart was being built, the city was planning a "new commercial hub", "an identifiable town center", a place that "would create a sense of 'townness'". (SDUT 2/27/1992 pII-1) Mayor Jan Goldsmith said the new town center "would change the direction of the city."

Sounds kind of familiar, doesn't it? But this was 1992, not 2008. The shopping center was not the current Town Center Redux but Creekside. The developers could not attract a major tenant to anchor the planned Creekside center, so they had to settle for a grocery store. One wonders if they would have even got a grocery store if they knew Wal-Mart planned to expand to sell groceries.

In the mid 1990s, the city laid out their "vision" for Poway Rd in a new planning document called "The Poway Road Specific Plan." One of the goals was a new town center. I guess Creekside just didn't measure up to all the hype. Other goals were to reduce congestion on Poway Rd, provide family oriented products and services, cut back on the surplus retail and create "an inter-connecting of commercial centers, public facilities and residential areas with enticing, attractive pedestrian walkways and driveways." (PRSP)

The PRSP was approved in 1996. All of the commercial property in the Poway Rd corridor was rezoned to a zone corresponding to one of the nodes of the specific plan. Wal-Mart and the adjacent commercial parcels were zoned "Town Center"(TC). In Sept, 1998, Wal-Mart wanted out of the PRSP. They wanted the zoning changed from TC to Commercial General (CG). On October 6, 1998, the City Council obliged. Wal-Mart and the adjacent parcel owned by McNamara, and the Plowboy's parcel were rezoned. They are the only commercial properties in the Poway Road corridor that are not part of the PRSP.

Does it matter? Well, if Wal-Mart was still in the PRSP, I imagine that their expansion would have required updating some elements that are inconsistent with the PRSP. For example, the PRSP requires "pedestrian pathways" that link commercial districts and residential areas. Currently, Wal-Mart has NO pedestrian access whatsoever. The only access is by vehicle. All of the sidewalks that surround the center end abruptly at the vehicular entrances. The plans for the expansion do show a single pedestrian ramp that will be constructed from Midland Rd to the entrance of Wal-Mart, but there are no pedestrian walkways from any of the other entry points.

I guess pedestrians and people in wheel chairs are just supposed to fly from the abutted sidewalk to the store entrance.

Wal-Mart would have to incorporate wider sidewalks around the perimeter under the PRSP and the portions of buildings adjacent to pedestrian areas would have to retain a comfortable "human" scale. Well, they don't call them "BIG BOX stores" for nothing.

The PRSP requires all parking lots that have more than 10 cars to have walkways from the parking areas to the main building. The walkways should be at least seven feet wide and shaded "by trees or vine covered pergolas." Currently, there are NO pedestrian walkways from the parking lot to the store entrances at Wal-Mart and none are visible on the expansion plans.

All new development and major rehabilitations in the Town Center zone are required to incorporate at least one pedestrian courtyard into the project. Something with water features, a gazebo, clock tower, something that invites people to linger. Here is what Wal-Mart has:

Poway's Wal-Mart is located in one of the densest residential areas of Poway. Yet, the welcome mat is only out for those who drive to Wal-Mart. A big box shopping center that caters to lots of car traffic and spurns pedestrians does not belong in the center of town. It is inconsistent with the surrounding residential and town center zones. Wal-Mart belongs in a non-residential area served by major roadways. Somewhere similar to where Home Depot and Costco are. If Wal-Mart were located up in the Industrial Park, it is likely that no one would give two hoots if it is open 24 hrs a day or if there is a line of cars and trucks a mile long waiting to get in. Heck, the people who live in Rancho Encantata, or whatever they call it now, have no retail or commercial whatsoever in their development. They can see Home Depot and Costco from their front porches. Why not put Wal-Mart up there and provide easy access for them to get to it? Without them having to drive on Poway Rd to get there?

If the City Council approves an expanded Wal-Mat in the center of town, they will have no excuse when they come back to us and want support for the Town Center Redux, with a pedestrian element that creates a town identity, blah, blah, blah. There will be no way anyone can interpret their motives as anything but another attempt to use land to create revenue and to hell with the people who live, work, play or have to drive through the area to get somewhere else to live, work or play.

Update: Jeffswpblog asks what reason Wal-Mart gave for wanting to change from TC zone to CG. I've added the staff report from the Sept 1, 1998 General Plan Amendment below.
The reasons are given on page 5:

The Poway Municipal Code identifies the Town Center zone as "intended to be the commercial center of the city and to accommodate various forms of general and specialty retail, dining and entertainment establishments and uses. The Poway Road Specific Plan indicates that this zone is intended to "serve as the focal point for government and entertainment uses." Poway Road Specific Plan design concepts are aimed at enhancing the pedestrian and architectural character of the district to provide and promote citizen interaction. The properties north of the Town and Country Shopping Center, however, are cut off from the core of the Town Center area by design of that center. Their ability to become part of the Town Center activity area is limited.

In other words, Wal-Mart is smack dab in the middle of downtown Poway, but it is an island of commercial activity unto itself, that is inconsistent with the rest of the commercial Poway Rd corridor BY DESIGN and they aren't interested in catering to any pedestrians who might live in the area either.


Anonymous said...

Interesting. What reason did Walmart give for requesting the change from TC to GC?

How do the new-car dealerships fit into the PRSP? Were people concerned about increased traffic when the dealerships came to town?

Joe said...

The only concerns I had about the new car dealerships (and I live behind the dead dodge dealer) was that the folks were test-driving their vehicles through our residential neighborhood in violation of the CUPs of the dealerships. Honestly, the car dealerships did not increase the traffic by any noticeable amount.

Chris Cruse said...

I've added the staff report from the zoning change request in an update at the bottom of the blog. They wanted the zoning change because, quite honestly, Wal-Mart was incompatible with the rest of the town center. Allowing Wal-Mart to expand is not going to make them fit in any better.

One of my favorite spots that has implemented the elements of the PRSP is the Taco Bell on the corner of Tarascan and Poway Rd. They have a covered seating area that is screened from the road, and a lovely walk to the entrance from the sidewalk.

The car dealerships are in a node of the PRSP called Automotive and Commercial General. They do not have the same requirements as the TC zone, especially with regard to the pedestrian enhancements.

The TC zone extends from Tarascan east to Midland. It was a mere 98 acres before Wal-Mart and the adjoining parcels dropped out. The Wal-Mart parcel was about 15 acres and is now a zoning anomaly between the residential areas on 3 sides and the rest of the TC zoning on the south.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Poway, but haven't lived there in many years. I'm glad to see there's even a conversation about making it walkable. I would have guessed it's too late to make a truly walkable community out of it.